Ways and Means Cover

Ways and Means

Lincoln and His Cabinet and the Financing of the Civil War

Roger Lowenstein

Penguin Press, New York, 2022, 448 pages

Book Review published on: February 24, 2023

In the book Ways and Means: Lincoln and His Cabinet and the Financing of the Civil War, author Roger Lowenstein writes a compelling narrative that considers a forgotten aspect of the Civil War. Lowenstein conveys the untold story of how President Abraham Lincoln, using the Civil War as a catalyst, transformed a union of states into a nation by using a financial optics lens. The author explores the Union and Confederacy’s ability versus inability to wholistically change the strategic direction of the country. Lincoln inherited a country in turmoil. The government had no authority to raise taxes, no federal bank, and no currency, causing the treasury to run out of money. While most would despair, Lincoln saw an opportunity to expand the government’s role by enacting laws to establish a currency, raise armies, underwrite transportation and higher education, and assist farmers while imposing taxes to support them.

Lowenstein breaks down this overarching narrative into fifteen specific and organized chapters beginning with the introduction and ending with an epilogue. The introduction delves into the mindset of the Republicans, who were elected on the eve of the Civil War based on their hostility to slavery, and the agenda of their political values. The Republicans enlarged the government to defeat the Confederacy, while fostering industry and growth, thus providing an opportunity for the less fortunate. The author contends the Republicans accomplished a nonviolent revolution that has largely been overlooked.

Lowenstein has written numerous critically acclaimed financial historical narratives such as America’s Bank: The Epic Struggle to Create and Federal Reserve, Buffett: The Making of an American Capitalist, and When Genius Failed: The Rise and Fall of Long-Term Capital Management. He craftily conveys the objectives of both the North and South in how the means, primarily of financing, was used in unprecedented ways. The war allowed Lincoln’s party to formulate a new notion of how the federal government could unite the nation. They raised and spent vast amounts of money, launching the country’s first national currency, while creating a national banking system and a viable program of federal taxation. They used the government to transform a transcontinental railroad, expand education opportunities, aid agricultural production, increase immigration quotas, all the while funding financial regulations.

While the narrative for each chapter begins from the North’s perspective, the author gives equitable writing space from the South’s perspective. He focuses on how the Southern economic model stood in stark contrast to the Northern agenda for a much stronger central government. The South focused on states’ rights with a society of planters having dominion over society. The chapters laid out the two economic philosophies and how they played out during four years of fighting. Though the North had its financial missteps such as issuing bonds through private banks, it did find ways to innovate and prosper. The South was too financially rigid, causing it to consume too many resources with no ability to finance future liabilities. This resulted in the inevitable depletion of its natural resources.

Some in Lincoln’s cabinet and party were undermining his execution of the war effort. He conveyed wisdom and tact that allowed his cabinet to stay the course and work in a unified effort to keep the Union intact. The book also enlightens its readers on how to deal with the covetous and contentious motives of working on a cabinet level or at a team level position.

I highly recommend Ways and Means; it is an excellent read for military and civilians alike. This book emphasizes how strategic leaders can wield the economic instrument of power to augment military power during large-scale combat operations or prolonged muti-year stability operations.

Book Review written by: Lt. Col. Stephen S. Harvey, U.S. Army, Retired, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas